It’s not often that an obscure state official manages to lay a serious defeat on the President of the United States. But that’s what Alex Padilla pulled off early this year, and he did it without gloating.
Padilla’s victory came just after New Year’s celebrations ended when President Trump announced the dissolution of his controversial anti-voter fraud panel, which had become mired in multiple lawsuits and resistance from many states.
The resistance was led from the get-go by Padilla, California’s secretary of state and top election official. When a federal commission demands copious information from every state and the most populous state refuses to provide any, it’s difficult to see how that commission can succeed. When more than 20 other states follow this lead, the commission’s task gets even harder.
So from the moment Padilla declared he wouldn’t cooperate, the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, nominally chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and actually led by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, seemed doomed to irrelevancy at best.
To understand all this, it’s necessary to think back to election night 2016, when Trump won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote by more than 3.1 million. He lost California by more than that, meaning this state caused the popular vote defeat Trump has been denying ever since.
His denials often take the form of allegations of widespread voter fraud, which he claimed on election night were especially egregious in California. Of course, neither he nor his staff nor his commission ever produced any evidence for this.
The fraud charge insulted Padilla, who insists California elections are clean. No investigation of alleged vote fraud in this state – not even one conducted in the late 1990s by a Republican-controlled Congress – ever found more than a minuscule number of violations. In short, the illegal immigrants Trump believes provided his margin of popular vote defeat have never been proven to affect the outcome of any election.
But less than a month after assuming office, Trump set up the supposedly bipartisan commission to examine his claims. Without any examples, his administration still insists “there is substantial evidence of voter fraud,” as press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed even while announcing the commission’s demise.
Padilla probably would have cooperated with this commission had it conducted a simple investigation on whether illegal immigrants registered to vote in large numbers or on questions about possible dead persons kept on voting rolls.
But Kobach went much farther, reminding observers of his past as a lawyer for the Foundation for American Immigration Reform, a strongly anti-immigration group. Within a month of the commission’s swearing in, he demanded from election officials in every state a list of all registered voters, their birth dates, party identification and voting histories, plus the last four digits of all voters’ Social Security numbers. So much for the old-fashioned secret ballot.
So sweeping were Kobach’s demands that, acting as Kansas’ top election official, he refused to turn over Social Security numbers to his own commission. It was OK to demand them from everyone else, but not from the constituents he hopes will elect him governor later this year.
Padilla’s immediate reaction, “I will not provide sensitive voter information to a commission that has already inaccurately passed judgment that millions of Californians voted illegally.” And that was that. The commission was an instant dead duck, even if it took months to become official.
Fortunately for voters who could have been at risk for rampant identity theft, the Kobach group had no subpoena powers.
When its end was announced, Padilla reacted without gloating. “It’s no surprise,” he said, “that a commission founded on a lie of widespread voter fraud proved to be a fraud itself … No taxpayer dollars should have been wasted on (this).”
But Trump still insists he lost the popular vote because of voter fraud, and it’s all but certain that if he’s not reelected in 2020, he’ll claim it was also because of that.
But his claims were never more than a flailing denial of reality, so his defeat by Padilla was inevitable and deserved.